The announcement by rail union RMT of a sustained programme of strikes on West Midlands Trains and South Western Railway represents a significant escalation and expansion of the union’s protracted and hard-fought war against the imposition of “Driver Only Operation”.
On West Midlands Trains, guards are striking every Saturday up to 28 December. The strikes on West Midlands Trains are especially significant as this is first new Train Operating Company (TOC) to join the DOO strikes since they were spread to Arriva Rail North (Northern Rail) and Greater Anglia in 2017. On South Western Railway (SWR), sustained strikes are planned from 2-11 December, 13-24 December, and 27 December-1 January, a significant escalation from previous strikes.
On the eve of the SWR strikes commencing, the bosses have ramped up their intimidation tactics, sending every guard a threatening letter. We have published a striking RMT guard's open letter in response to this attempted intimidation, here. As the strikes approached, the RMT's NEC rightly voted to reject a proposal emerging from ongoing Acas negotiations, which would have seen guards have even less control of opening and closing train doors during despatch than they do currently, under the terms of a settlement reached following previous rounds of strikes. While it is encouraging that the union's NEC rejected this offer, it is worrying that it was ever brought before them in the first place. Proposals which would actively worsen workers' conditions, and are contrary to union policy, should be rejected outright at the negotiation stage, without having to be brought back before any union committee for vetting.
Given the unprecedented length of the SWR strikes, significant fundraising, within the union and across the labour movement, is necessary to ensure any worker in financial hardship is not forced to choose between their principles and paying the rent. Effective picketing, that seeks to deter scabs from coming into work and seeks to put real pressure on drivers not to cross guards’ picket lines, is also required. The SWR strikes are amongst the most prolonged rail strikes in British industrial history, and are a testament to the workers’ refusal to surrender despite the protracted dispute.
On Northern and Merseyrail, RMT has recently called off strikes to consider proposed settlements hailed as breakthrough deals. On Northern, the company has proposed a method of train dispatch that retains a second safety-critical member of staff (i.e., a guard) on trains, but transfers the responsibility for closing the doors to the driver. RMT guards have recently voted by 95% to approve the continuation of negotiations around this model.
However, cause for concern remains. A Northern worker, writing on the Off the Rails blog, said: “When the [platform] is clear, the guard presses the buzzer to tell the driver it is safe to close the doors. The driver closes the doors.
“Of course, there is the small matter that the buzzer is not live when the doors are open. But, in case they get a technical fix for this, the bigger question is: if the guards can press a buzzer to communicate with the driver, then why can’t the guard press a button to close the doors?
“The answer, of course, is that they can. So why would the company get the guard to press something to tell the driver to close the doors when they can just as easily have them press something to close the doors themselves? The only answer to that question is that their longer-term aim is to scrap the guard.”
Merseyrail was the TOC where guards’ strikes had perhaps the biggest impact, regularly shutting down the service. They were bolstered by near 100% solidarity from Merseyrail drivers, who admirably bucked the national trend of Aslef drivers crossing RMT picket lines. Given the solidity and effectiveness of the Merseyrail strikes, anything other than a total victory there would be a missed opportunity.
The latest offer from Merseyrail, for which strikes planned in October were called off, retains guards on trains and maintains their control over the dispatch process. However, it also proposes to create a two-tier workforce, by creating a new entry grade on worse terms and conditions.
Throughout 2019, strikes were repeatedly called off on Merseyrail to allow for discussion of various proposed settlements emerging from negotiations. Some of these proposed retaining guards’ jobs at the expense of cleaners’ jobs, a flagrant affront to the principles of industrial unionism that should have even made it past the negotiations. Although the latest proposal, if accepted, would represent a partial but major victory in that it resists the immediate imposition of DOO, it would do so at the expense of the terms and conditions of future workers. The proposal remains under the scrutiny of the RMT National Executive Committee; if the NEC votes to endorse it, it will likely be put to a referendum of Merseyrail members with a recommendation to accept.
It is also notable that RMT statements hailing the deal as "a breakthrough" praise Regional Organiser John Tilley by name, a break from the usual protocol in which less personal formulations, which might congratulate "negotiating reps, officers, members, and activists", are used. Tilley, a loyal supporter of general secretary Mick Cash, is currently standing for re-election against Steve Nott, currently a member of the union's NEC.
A rejection of the proposal would mean a return to industrial action. Although striking to protect the rights and conditions of workers not yet employed, when your own are no longer under threat, represents a sacrifice, it is just such a perspective that, amongst other things, distinguishes socialist trade unionism from the mere protection of the status quo for existing workers.
Merseyrail guards, and their supporters amongst drivers, have struck repeatedly and effectively and forced a previously intransigent management into huge concessions. However their dispute ends, that achievement should be acknowledged and celebrated. But the solidarity and power they have developed has the potential not only to defend their conditions, but to ensure they can pass them on to future workers.